Opening of the 2017 Australian Political Studies Association Conference

Pullman & Mercure, 65 Queens Road, Albert Park

Monday 26 September 2017

It is my pleasure to welcome you to the 2017 Australian Political Studies Association (APSA) Conference here in Melbourne.

I acknowledge the people of the Kulin Nations, on whose land we are gathered today.

The Kulin Nation people maintained their own systems of governance, and practised their own customs and traditions, for many thousands of years before the City of Melbourne was founded. I pay my respects to their Elders, past and present.

This year marks the 60th anniversary since the first Australian Political Studies Association gathering was held in Canberra.

The mission has always been clear.

To formalise the engagement of scholars working in disciplines spanning Political Science, International Relations, Political Theory and Philosophy, Comparative Politics, Public Policy, and other related fields.

And to foster the exchange of ideas, approaches and methods between them, across diverse avenues of enquiry and academic methods, as we work to interpret and resolve many of the most pressing challenges of the day.

In the decades since APSA was established the field of political studies has evolved and transformed.

At the first conference in Canberra in 1957, just 5 papers were presented, and the first edition of APSA News listed a total of 32 people working in the field in Australian universities.  There were, of course, many fewer Australian universities then.

This year more than 300 papers are to be presented and the event will span three days.

Political studies scholars of all stripes have helped to shape Australia’s social, cultural and economic post World War II landscape, making contributions that have earned recognition far beyond their own disciplines.

As communications and knowledge have globalised, the role of political studies scholars has been crowded out by the voices of those whose expertise is drawn from practice or journalists drawn from access and longevity of observation and commentary.

The impact of scholarly expertise is not as it once was when the reach of communications was less and was experienced as less fragmented.  And this is of more consequence when we struggle with the intersection of democracy and populism – the theme which animates this conference.

I hope you will excuse me if I use some of the experience of Monash University whose history is broadly congruent with the development of APSA.

Monash is proud that it began with a strong contribution to this broad field, taught at Monash from the University’s founding years in the early 1960s.

From its outset, under foundation Professor of Politics, (Solomon) Rufus Davis and his successors, the University sought to focus specifically on Australian politics, particularly Political Theory and Philosophy.

This was reflected in the Department being named the “Department of Politics” rather than of “Political Science”.

The Department also had an eye to policy impact being relatively unusual among Australian Politics departments for being embedded in a Faculty of Economics, rather than Arts, until the 1980s (when economics as a field divorced itself from politics).

The Department came of age during the Vietnam War, with Professors Hugh Emy and Max Teichman shaping successive Australian government approaches to the conflict.

Its impact lies not only in the leadership in research and education of its staff  – from Denis White and David Kemp through to James Walter and Paul Strangio more recently – but also in the many Monash alumni who have gone on to significant political office, including Peter Costello, Simon Crean, Sharman Stone and Kay Patterson and in current political leadership positions, Bill Shorten, Daniel Andrews, and Richard Di Natale.

Monash Politics also began with international relations strongly focused on the Asia-Pacific region.

Building on the legacies of Herb Feith and David Goldsworthy, understanding Australia’s role as a middle power within the Asia-Pacific has continued led by Andrew Linklater through the 1980s and 1990s through to Professor Jacqui True today.  Although today the issues of gender and politics loom larger than they did at its beginnings.

A big canvas was laid at Monash and one that reflects the breadth of APSA’s canvas.  But it is not the stretching of that canvas that will concern most of you in the days ahead, but the extent to which the conversations had here can:

  • affect and shape the political landscape in which understanding of civil society is built, but not torn apart;
  • in which policy is shaped, but not distorted;
  • in which voice is given expression, but neither bellows nor whispers.

All us gathered here understand and recognise, trust and value the contributions of scholars of the kind I have just mentioned.

The question that bedevils us is whether those scholarly contributions are recognised and trusted outside the academy. And the answer is one we cannot and should not take for granted – and which is worthy of investigation and understanding.

The task of political scholars to engage with the broader public has become more urgent.  The future of engagement and impact is not solely the province of innovation in science, technology and health.  Global challenges are challenges for people and society, they require political understanding and will.  Solutions to problems do not spring fully formed into implementation once recognised. The definition of a problem, the recognition of its solution and the acceptance of solutions are all matters that are political.

And because the political conversation we have is with larger, more diverse and often more sceptical audiences – the shaping of that conversation is more complex and perilous.

We live in a society and research and educate in a tradition that is democratic.  We take for granted the rights and freedoms for citizens to vote for their representatives, to equality before the law, to protection by the law of our rights and freedoms.

We accept implicitly and explicitly the power of the majority to set directions, because we also rely on the protections through the law of a range of individual rights and freedoms.

The reconciliation of majority representative rule with individual rights is neither simple nor fixed and this is nowhere more evident currently than in the postal survey on same sex marriage underway in Australia.

And as Dennis Altman so clearly articulated in the most recent Griffith Review “The essential difference between populism and democracy is that democracy entails more than majority rule”.[1]

Majority opinion is not enough to countenance overriding particular individual rights and freedoms.  Yet in the connection between the representative politician and their increasingly large and disparate polity, the role of public opinion, as the voice of the majority, is more potent than ever.  And the multifarious channels and platforms for mass communications amplify this voice.

Nowhere is it written that majority opinion must be shaped by expert opinion, and so we should not be surprised that false claims, fake news, flawed predictions and faux-solutions are as readily available in mass communications as more reasoned and evidenced reports.

But it is the rise of the populists or populism where expertise, reasoning and evidence, rather than being vehicles for advancement of the public good, are cast as obstacles or perversions of majority aspiration that is most dangerous in our democracies.

This is the domain where populism seeks to overwhelm the voice of the individual, to distract debate from engagement with the evidence that experts may provide about the implications of our actions, where tyranny overwhelms individual freedoms and rights and is claimed to do so in the name of the people and their rights and freedoms.

The public arena is a contested, fragmented and distracting space but also a space where the populist ‘game’ is to deny the arena the full spectrum of ideas and the full range of debate by making all opinion equally valid.


[1] Altman, Dennis. “Discontents: Identity, Politics, Institutions”. Griffith Review 57, (August 2017), p81.

[2] Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume, London: Longmans, Green, and Co., Vol. 9, 1915, p241.

Works cited

Altman, Dennis. “Discontents: Identity, Politics, Institutions”. Griffith Review 57, (August 2017), 80-92.

Bagehot, Walter. The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., Vol. 9, 1915.